By Duane Johnson
It was a dark moonless night in northern France in early December. The cold wind coming off the Atlantic was strong with a spiting of snow squalls intermittently occurring. The wet ground was beginning to freeze and patches of white areas were forming in the protected spots. Our unit was in a resting mood for the night.
We mustered early the next morning to advance our line to the northeast. Our progress seemed uneventful and our squad was in close proximity to a familiar tank. It was going to be a wet, cold, and exhaustive day with wet feet.
I was an infantryman in the United States Army belonging to a unit of tanks and heavy artillery trying to advance toward the border of Germany. It had been a grueling march through mud, wet fields, and open areas of land making us very easy targets. Our feet were soaked and very cold. We had been outfitted with winter clothing which was a true blessing in these conditions. We had a heavy pack to carry on our backs, our rifles, and an ammunition belt with four grenades. We had our lunch, dinner, and water jug tucked securely to the inside pockets of our coats. I imagined the German soldier advancing toward us was experiencing much of the same.
Our commander announced we would stop for lunch in a nice field just short of a small rise in the land covered with a thin area of mixed trees extending in both directions. During our lunch period two advanced scouts arrived and spoke to the commander. It was so nice to be among our fellow soldiers and the fellowship was indeed rewarding just to have a short time for conversation.
Our commander instructed our unit to spread horizontally and proceed in this manner to this thin area of trees. This area of trees extended nearly two miles from start to finish, but was maybe 100 feet thick. It was announced this area was to be our spot for the night and to be totally invisible. All engines in vehicles were required to be stopped. No camp fires, lighted matches, no smoking, and no flashlights. All voices were to be totally silent. Just before allowing my body in agony and desperate for sleep I could hear the sounds of large German Artillery firings some miles in the distance. I knew this wonderful serene hiding place at any moment could be hell on earth.
We were called to muster just before dawn the next morning. Our squad of eight men received orders to proceed behind two tanks and take cover approximately two miles to a fairly large creek surrounded by some heavy brush and small saplings. We were approximately 100 yards from our assigned destination when two of our tanks near the creek were hit and destroyed. Our squad leader motioned us to sprint for cover in the tall brush on the west side of the creek. We were able to securely arrive at a small area of safety in the brush.
Just a few minutes after we thought we were secure in the brush we heard the familiar sound of two German Panzer tanks approaching with men following. One of the enemy tanks crossed the creek smashing brush and small trees in its path. I noticed the men behind this tank remained on the opposite side with the second tank. The first tank started up the slight slope toward our line and was hit by our artillery fire and destroyed. The second tank made a complete turn and headed back. We noticed two men behind the tank enter the brush on the opposite side of the creek. The other German soldiers retreated with the second tank. We now faced two German soldiers. But, where were my seven comrades?
They must have left their positions when the Panzer tank was destroyed. I was now alone and I decided not to move, but enhance the coverage of my location by placing some brush over, in front of me, and behind me. I truly wanted to survive. I thought of my parents, my brothers, sisters, and a multitude of family members. After a few minutes, maybe an hour or so, who knows, but I heard some breaking brush limbs and a rifle shot with the familiar thud of a man down. Didn’t know whether it was one of our men or one of theirs.
Several hours later dusk was approaching. I thanked the good Lord I was safe, but nature was calling. The early morning coffee was needing to be released. I was in great pain and I noticed where I was laying there was a slope in the ground to my left. What a relief, but I quickly realized my safety was still in peril. I heard a snap of a small limb and as I looked up I saw a dirty bruised hand peeling away my cover in front of my face. My M-1 was loaded and ready to fire, when this young blond, blue eyed, German soldier met me eye to eye. He had no helmet or weapon and I pegged his age maybe at eighteen or younger. Shortly after seeing his eyes, he winked at me. I knew at this point he was not a danger to me. I couldn’t bring myself to pull the trigger. I think he realized he was safe and I motioned to him with my hand to leave.
I now realized the second German soldier may still be a problem unless he was dead. I started to memorize all of the surface features back to the west where we serenely spent the previous night. About a third of the way across this open area was the destroyed Sherman tank. Beyond our Sherman tank was the destroyed German Panzer tank and few yards further was our second destroyed Sherman tank. I noticed just past the second Sherman tank stood a lone tree of good size just to the left and only about 100 feet to safety. As darkness settled in I decided it was time to make my break. The land was open with a slight upgrade, and I reached the first destroyed Sherman tank. After carefully listening and trying to see for a short time, I sprinted for the destroyed Panzer tank. Again after surveying the scene to approach our line, I ran to the second destroyed Sherman tank. Now the tree and again making sure the path was clear, I reached the trunk of the tree. Realizing I didn’t want to be shot by our guards guarding our line, I peeked around the trunk of this tree and stated in a soft voice Chicago. A response from our line came back in a hushed tone, Illinois. I was safe and greeted warmly.
Duane Johnson’s story “The Meeting,” was the Siskiyou Writers’ Club’s selection for best story at its June meeting. The Siskiyou Writers’ Club is a local group of folks with a passion for creative writing of all genres. We generally meet the last Thursday of the month in various locations throughout Siskiyou County. Our next meeting will be Thursday July 28, 2022, 5:00 PM at Dunsmuir’s Botanical Garden. For more information about the club, contact Mike Grifantini, 530-710-4882, email [email protected], or Bob Kaster, 530-598-5204, email [email protected].